International football: What's it like to play for the lowest-ranked nations?

12/06/2019 08:21

BBC Sport takes a global look at what it's really like to play for an international minnow.

"In my first training session with the national team, one of the players said to the manager: 'Sorry boss, I have to leave to go and tie up my cow.'"

A 19-year-old Jason Roberts discovered very quickly that international football isn't always glamorous.

For global stars like Paul Pogba, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, playing for their country offers the chance to compete for the greatest prizes in world football.

Further down the food chain, expectations are more modest.

But this is a place where farmers can line up against icons of the game, and where tiny island nations take on - and sometimes even beat - nations of millions of people, as the 64% of countries who have never made the World Cup finals seek to defy the odds and make history.

Welcome to the world of the international minnow.

'Like non-league football'

Roberts ultimately played at the highest level of club football, scored 37 Premier League goals and became the record signing at three clubs.

But when he first joined up with Grenada, his successes in English football were still ahead of him.

"I was just Jason from down the road," he tells BBC Sport. "I turned up at training straight from the airport in a suit and chauffeur-driven car and the boys looked at me as if to say 'you're not Ian Wright or Stan Collymore'.

"Most of my team-mates had never left the island and never been blessed with the opportunities I got in England. There is no coaching development system, no academies, no Manchester United or Chelsea to turn you into a professional footballer.

"But the team have always been a great bunch who work hard jobs - farmers, labourers, builders. Their passion for their country has nothing to do with money.

"It's something I could relate to from playing non-league football."

Grenada have never reached the World Cup finals; a Caribbean Cup runners-up spot is their best performance to date. An island of just 107,000 people, it would be unrealistic to expect more - but Roberts insists the locals have high standards.

"One of our greatest results was a 3-2 defeat against the United States in 2004. I scored to make it 1-1 and we nearly got a famous draw against a nation of more than 300 million people.

"But there is a lot of Caribbean national pride. The supporters expected a win."

Infrastructure, intensity and in-fighting

For Pakistan, the problems are starkly different.

A country of more than 200 million people, the resources are there. But a large population does not always translate into football success.

Highest populations never to play at the World CupCountryPopulationWorld population sizeFifa rankingIndia1.3bn2nd101stPakistan204m6th200thBangladesh161m8th188th

Pakistan sit 200th in the current Fifa world rankings and face three significant barriers: climate, infrastructure and in-fighting.

Former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman knows the deep-rooted challenges.

"Cricket and hockey are by far the most popular sports," he says.

"When Pakistan play home games, stadiums are full. But there is never any sustained push around the game."

The majority of the Pakistan national team play domestically, where there are no foreign players and coaching development is minimal.

"It's hard for our players to play outside Pakistan and that restricts the standard," adds Rehman.

The talent is there - Atletico Madrid were so convinced they opened up an academy in Pakistan in January.

Atletico Madrid aim to get players into the Pakistani youth teams in three to five years


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